Many of us can still remember the first time we saw Star Wars – not Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, that CGI-facelifted-Greedo-shoots-first-cashgrab – but the original, in all of its 70mm glory. I saw it in a movie theater in the suburbs of Omaha; my mom took me on opening day, and the hype hadn’t reached our little corner of the Midwest. (It would, and in a hurry; we drove past that theater a couple of days later, and the lines were around the block.) And when that bigass Star Destroyer came out of the top of the screen and kept on comin’, I’d never look at another movie the same way again.
Of course, we grow up, and though many of us still utter lines like “I’d say about twenty guns, some on the surface, some on the towers” and “what an incredible smell you’ve discovered!” with only the barest hint of cynicism in our voices, nothing’s really ever done it for us, we geeks, like that flick. And you know, maybe nothing else ever will. Moviemakers have gone to the well, trying to capture that magic, and in doing so they’ve drained it. Hell, George Lucas went to a few different wells himself – most notably Campbell’s, Kurosawa’s and Mallory’s. We’ve gotten remakes and big screen versions of classic trilogies/comic books and of course sequel after sequel after sequel. My kid’s current favorite TV show is a cartoon version of a war only mentioned in a single line in a movie, and even then by a holographic version of a space princess. Will we ever get something as new, as paradigm-shifting as the original Star Wars? Probably not in my lifetime.
But holy shit, James Cameron’s Avatar comes close.
By now, you probably know what it’s about: human scientists and their mercenary protectors are mining Pandora for an inexhaustible energy source (unobtainium!) and the locals, a bunch of 12 foot tall part-cat/all badass aliens called the Na’vi, aren’t really happy about it. The humans have created clones of the Na’vi called Avatars, and the Avatars are controlled via the brainwaves of human “Drivers”. New Driver Jake Sully, a wounded Marine, becomes a part of the Na’vi culture, ultimately winning over a badass Na’vi female, and has to decide where his loyalties are when the military decides to take the biggest stash of unobtainium(!) by force. Guess what happens next.
So, yes, there’s a lot of Dances With Wolves going on (Wes Studi voicing one of the Na’vi – not subtle); Sci-fi geeks will quickly get that Pandora is a lot more like Arrakis, and “Jakesully” is more Paul Muad’dib than “Johndunbar”. While it’s a stretch to say you’ve never seen anything like it (you have), you’ve never seen such a world delivered in such an eye-fucking package. The universe of Avatar – from its bleak, desperate human elements to the Roger Dean painting come to life that is planet Pandora – is jaw-dropping. The 3D effects, rather than being gimmicky, serve both an aesthetic and thematic purpose; you feel what Jake must feel as he’s freed from his wheelchair. There are no “yo-yo coming right you!” shots; the sensation is that of being completely immersed in the film, in this world that Cameron created. It’s truly thrilling, especially when the characters are scaling the Hallelujah Mountains and running along massive tree branches hundreds of feet off the ground.
(And it pains me to say this, but the movie is not for young kids – a scene in which Jake fights off a bunch of dog-things is pretty goddamn scary, and the big final battle has a lot of Na’vi and RDA Marines being killed in nasty ways – the Na’vi use some big fucking arrows.)
The movie’s not perfect; as indicated, there’s not a whole lot of originality in the storyline. There are, of course, environmental and political messages – this is the guy that had Celine Dion wailing some bullshit about hearts going on at the end of Titanic, so those messages aren’t exactly subtle – but the movie is never somber or preachy, and has a surprising amount of humor. And yeah, the Na’vi do come across as Noble Savage stereotypes; the saving grace here is Neytiri (real-life Driver: Zoe Saldana) – a flat-out marvel, a great character, never mind the fact that she’s CGI (your move, Peter Jackson).
That said, I can’t recall the last time I’ve been so thoroughly amazed and entertained by a movie. I’d have to go back to that theater in Omaha, and while Avatar isn’t Star Wars, it’s something very special. Bottom line: you need to go see this movie. I can’t wait to see it again.